Poor communications and project management in the Department of Agriculture has led to difficulties in the forestry sector, according to a leading expert who has devised a plan to clear a backlog of licence applications.

A new plan titled 'Project Woodland' will deal with the implementation of a range of measures to speed up the issuing of licences for felling trees and planting new ones.

There was only 2,488 hectares of forestry planted last year, well short of the Government's own target of 8,000 hectares.

The author of the plan, the former CEO of Scottish Forestry Jo O'Hara, described delays in processing felling licences last summer as "a full blown crisis which threatens the ongoing operation of the forestry sector as a whole".

The report said the situation was so bad in 2020 that "owners were unable to harvest their timber, and timber processors unable to access sufficient Irish timber, resorting to imports to maintain throughput.

"This has seriously undermined confidence right across the forest and woodland sector and has been raised several times at the Oireachtas."

The strategy published today by Minister of State Pippa Hackett identifies reducing the backlog of applications as one of the key priorities.

It also laid out how a forestry strategy for the country could address a range of issues. It also dealt with leadership in the sector, which it said "has been missing".

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The strategy said that the sector looks to the Department of Agriculture for leadership but it said the Department has not fulfilled that role of providing leadership. 

The industry continues to insist it is in crisis mode, Minister Hackett concedes there are significant issues and has said that the Project Woodland strategy can address ongoing issues and help increase and improve the planting of trees.

But the Minister of State said a broad focus on different types of forestry and not just the backlog in licence and appeals processing is needed, "while of course the issues with licencing of afforestation, roads, and felling must be addressed, bigger questions about forestry also need to be considered. Timber production is important, but trees are about more than timber.

"They are also about beauty, biodiversity, the environment, carbon capture, community enjoyment and enterprise, and social good and it's time to find the space to say that, and value that. That is why I am delighted today to announce the immediate setting up of Project Woodland".

A range of work streams and implementation groups will be put in place and there now appears to be broad support for "pre-application" discussions. This could mean that the number of poor applications on unsuitable lands would be reduced, which could help reduce unnecessary and problematic licence applications.

Forestry Industry Ireland gave the publication of the strategy a cautious welcome.

Its Director Mark McAuley said: "The afforestation programme is on the floor, we are not getting trees into the ground and we are not getting trees out of the ground and into the sawmills.

"The industry needs a kick start now. The industry is suffering from poor administration in the Department of Agriculture, we have achieved great things and we are now at an impasse, we need to get that sorted out and once we do there is a bright future, for climate change, for the industry, and for rural communities."

Minister Hackett has said her department will consult directly with the forestry industry as part of a new approach to forests and woodlands which will seek to deal with a backlog in licensing issues that have impacted the industry.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Ms Hackett said the backlog in licensing issues will be dealt with as part of the project, with a new project management approach being taken by her department as recommended by the report by Jo O'Hara.

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She said along with licensing issues, her Department will divide into workstreams to address the ways we look at trees and woodland. She said resourcing of the project is under way with staff including ecologists and forestry inspectors being recruited.

She said that under Project Woodland stakeholders will be brought in to discuss their opinions and harness their experience.

The minister said she will also bring in outside expertise from public service and governments to independently chair working groups.

She said that the project will focus on the backlog and one workstream will focus on "streamlining the licensing process for the future".

Minister Hackett said that a single pre-planning grant is among the items that will be examined, but that issues around single planning consent are difficult given the impact on the environment in the long-term.

She said it will consider different licensing processes for felling and thinning.

She said "we have to make this work" and taking a project management approach to it is the best way to do that and come up with a plan to do so.